FINGER ON THE PULSE
CELEBRATING AG SUCCESS DUE TO BETTER FARM PRACTICES
BY STAN BLADE, P.Ag.
This year is a special one. The 68th United Nations General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYOP). In Western Canada, the benefits of growing peas, dry beans, faba beans, chickpeas and lentils are common knowledge. There are few producers who do not appreciate the role that these crops play in nitrogen fixation, rotational reduction of crop disease and pest cycles, seeding/harvest scheduling, and marketing flexibility.
The Canadian pulse industry is taking full advantage of the IYOP to raise the profile of pulse products with consumers. There will be a wide array of events to remind people of the health benefits of pulses, including their role in addressing obesity and their capacity to prevent and help manage chronic diseases, such as cancer, coronary conditions and diabetes. Pulse crops are used across the globe as a significant source of plant-based proteins and amino acids.
IYOP 2016 has brought back some great memories of how important pulse crops are across the world, and how much I have learned about research and development through my association with this group of crops.
During my own time breeding field peas it was clear that genetic adaptation is the key to introducing a new crop into our production systems. After three decades, we have excellent material adapted to our conditions. In addition to varietal development, our zero-tillage seeders and granular inoculant provided the tools to find a good fit for pulse crops within our prairie crop production cycle. Granular inoculant was adopted because of the need for effectiveness, convenience and seeding efficiency.
In the mid-1990s, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation lab in Australia was the first large transgenic field pea program being used to develop new pea lines that were resistant to pea weevils. In the lab there was great excitement because a gene had been identified in beans that was known to stop weevils by creating an alpha-amylase inhibitor. The presence of this protective protein prevented weevils from attacking the beans. The new pea cultivar was grown but, in feeding trials, both pigs and chickens showed problems with digesting the new pea ration. The takeaway here is that no matter what great idea is possible through technology, there must always be openness to unexpected consequences.
Near Machu Picchu, in Peru’s Sacred Valley, there are field pea and lupin plots in farmers’ fields at altitudes approaching 3,800 metres above sea level. Those fields were made more interesting by learning about Moray, an archaeological site
between the Sacred Valley and Cuzco consisting of a circular set of terraces set deep into a mountain ridge. Inca experts have many theories about this location, but most of them suggest that this was a kind of laboratory to test how different crops would perform at different temperatures. The idea that the Incas were doing their own crop testing and selection in a dedicated site in the middle of the Andes is remarkable.
The cropping systems across Africa have always amazed me, going back to my initial visit in the early 1980s. Whether in the rain forest or the savannah, farmers have created elegant systems where several crops are grown together. It is not unexpected to have cereals, pulses (peanut, cowpea, etc.), roots and tubers, and specialty crops all growing in the same field. My research focused on breeding and selecting cowpea (a pulse crop indigenous to Africa used by tens of millions as a protein source) within these intercropping systems. It makes a person wonder about the role of intercropping in Western Canada. Forage crops are a mix of species, and many people try to intercrop cereals and pulses for silage (we did indeterminate field pea-barley combinations in Alberta in the late 1990s). I believe that there will be a time when intercropping becomes a useful production system in the Prairies.
My experience with pulse crops has provided a number of insights about the research process, including what works and what doesn’t. Pulse crops play an incredibly important role for producers and consumers across the globe. I am optimistic that pulse crops will continue to be an integral component of global farming and food systems. The IYOP will provide an opportunity to send that message around the world.